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A Long Life

On a nature hike at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park during his undergraduate studies, David Burchfield (‘21) came across the oldest living organism measured on the Earth today.

His trek brought him to a grove of Great Basin bristlecone pines, which, like other conifer species of its kind, can only grow in certain areas of Utah, Nevada, and California. (Conifers refer to trees that are cone-bearing, with needle-like leaves.) Burchfield was fascinated by the “grotesque” shape of the trees, and the way their various twists and grooves, battered by the elements, had weathered and developed under the Nevada wind. 

The bristlecone pine has existed for thousands of years and only grows in the mountains. Today it remains the longest-living life form on this planet measured by scientists.

Burchfield was inspired by his encounter with the trees. Upon returning from his trip, he immediately spoke to his advisor, Professor Steve Petersen, who had also studied the bristlecone pine and encouraged him to pursue research of the species.

Burchfield, who received his undergraduate degree at BYU in geography and specializes in geographic information systems, decided to pursue a PhD in the plant and wildlife sciences program to understand the conditions in which the bristlecone pine is able to thrive. He and his team created a slope habitat suitability model, which, as Burchfield explains it, “takes into account environmental variables, giving you a map of the probability of encountering the species.” These environmental variables include soil composition, climate differences, and topography. In essence, Burchfield says, his slope habitat suitability model is a map specifically designed to locate the bristlecone pine. As the species is resilient against harsh weather and rocky, dry soils, they cannot survive in milder climates and prefer more abrasive atmospheric conditions. Their unusual shape comes from the winds of their ecosystem, and they were first dubbed “foxtail” pines by the cragged points on their needles, later renamed bristlecone. The red, twisting bristlecone wood owes its beauty to the hardiness of its surface despite the mountain winds.

Burchfield graduates with his PhD in plant and wildlife sciences this August, and recently moved to Rexburg, ID to take up a faculty position at BYU-Idaho teaching geography, remote sensing, and GIS.

“A PhD is long,” Burchfield laughs. It is easy, he added, to get bogged down in the minutiae of studies in an advanced degree. To students pursuing a PhD, he advises keeping an end goal in mind, something aspirational to work towards.